Testing Minnesota's gun show loophole

How easy is it to buy a firearm in the Twin Cities?

Both men grin in that knowing, self-contained way common to hobbyists of all stripes.

By late afternoon it was time to redouble my efforts to buy a handgun.

I came across a Hi-Point 380 ACP for $159. Hi-Point specializes in affordable handguns, perfectly reliable but not very exotic—an ideal starter gun. She was mine.

"Can I help you?" asks a walrus-mustached man, his flaccid jowls signaling a nonchalant demeanor.

"So, um, what's the difference between a Glock and a Beretta?" I asked.

A stupid question in this environment, and also a suspicious one. It'd be like attending the Cannabis Cup and asking a vendor the difference between hashish and marijuana.

"Well, Glocks are easier to use, I suppose, with a trigger-on-trigger safety, instead of an external lever," he says. "Beretta, on the other hand, is a more traditional pistol with a hammer instead of a slide."

I opt for neither, going instead with the Hi-Point. He hands me a clipboard containing a questionnaire—the background check required of all licensed firearms dealers. The so-called "gun show loophole" refers to sales between two individuals. The occasional guy walking around with a rifle and makeshift price tag are not required to check in with the national criminal database each time they make a sale.

A permit to purchase is often confused with a permit to carry, the latter being more expensive, time-intensive, and controversial. Permits to carry, despite widespread public misunderstanding, have nothing to do with concealed carry. A permit to carry in the state of Minnesota allows anyone to walk down Hennepin Avenue armed with, say, 15 clearly visible handguns strapped across his chest if he so chooses. That's a horrible idea for many reasons, so most permit carriers voluntarily conceal.

"You have your permit to purchase, right?" asks the vendor.

The answer to the question was an unfortunate no.

"No permit to purchase?" he said. "You're shit outta luck, my friend."

THREE WEEKS LATER, the National Guard Armory in Anoka bustles with gun collectors. It's a smaller venue than the last, but with a similar number of booths and a bit more foot traffic at this noon hour. If there's a show to buy a gun without the proper credentials, this would seem to be my best chance.

But three consecutive attempts yield reactions ranging from apologetic to annoyed.

"No permit to purchase, no sale," snaps a looming, pear-shaped man as his plump hands hastily repackage what would otherwise be a sale. "Wasting your time here without one. Good day."

The vendors here are sticklers on every provision, clause, subsection, and footnote on the books. In one case, a clean-cut seller in a charcoal-black Harley Davidson shirt conversed curtly with two men, one who appeared to be in his 70s, the other fiftyish. The vendor refuses to sell more than two handguns to the befuddled duo.

"Them's the rules," says the vendor. "I don't give a fuck, but them's the rules."

"Well, in that case, I'll just buy the Colt and sell it to him," replies the elder of the two.

"Now that's a straw buy," retorted the vendor. "One hundred percent illegal. I don't give a fuck, but if I were to sell ya that after you just told me that, I'd lose my license!"

"I've known him since he was this high," says the man, holding his liver-spotted hand four feet off the floor.

"I understand that, but it's worse than dealing with the IRS if I sold ya two!"

Six days, three gun shows, and 19 attempts to buy handguns sans permit had yielded zero sales.

"WE DON'T SHOOT TO KILL," Rothman tells four students sitting attentively in a small classroom in the upstairs of an Eden Prairie sporting goods store. "We shoot to live."

The attendees are applying for conceal-and-carry permits. Two guys appear to be in their 50s, the others in their 30s. Three are white, one is Asian, all are male.

We file into what could pass for a small bowling alley. Behind the counter, through a full-length pane of glass, gunmen idly shoot paper targets. Around them, hundreds of brass casings lay on the frayed gray carpet like dead metallic roaches.

The day's test will consist of shooting a paper silhouette of a man at two distances: 15 and 21 feet, mere layups to seasoned shooters.

I go last. Taking position at the far-left gallery, I admit to being a handgun virgin.

"I'll be gentle," quips Rothman.

We start with a .22 caliber Browning Buckback, a comparatively innocuous little imp better suited to cans and targets than burglars. Ten bullets zip through the paper silhouette and it's on to more powerful fare.

Rothman produces an almost comically oversized silver revolver, an eight-shot .357 caliber Taurus 608. It's heavy, with a surprisingly mild kick, much gentler than the comparatively diminutive Taurus Model 85 .38 Special. The uninitiated might assume small pistols carry a pint-sized kick. But owing to the basic law of physics, the heavier the make, the milder the recoil.

After five minutes and 25 rounds of warm-ups, it's time for the test. An inexplicable wave of adrenaline washes through my arms and torso as I clumsily load five 9mm rounds into a magazine. I slap the magazine into the handle grip of a midnight-black semi-automatic Glock 17, and take aim.

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